I’m not always up for experimental adventures in film. If I’m giving up 2+ hours, I want some guaranteed ROI. But occasionally a review resonates. Who knows why? Blame it on my mysterious but rarely wrong intuition. If there’s hangtime I go with the universe. So it was with that thought that we headed off to The Camelot Theater in Palm Springs, home of The Desert Film Society and artsy fartsy film screenings. The paper had a short blurb describing the screening of a documentary about an obscure musician who had been touted as the next Bob Dylan but who flamed out early and disappeared. I don’t even like Dylan – never, ever did. But I thought the historical period would be useful to my labor of love, a novel about the Rock and Roll era.
To say that truth is stranger than fiction belongs in the department of redundant redundancy. This is some strange story. Searching for Sugarman is a Swedish documentary; the winner of the Sundance Special Jury Prize as well as its Audience Award. The film chronicles the short-lived almost-career of a seventies Detroit troubadour named Sixto Rodriguez who apparently disappeared after releasing two albums to critical acclaim. So much for the vision of pundits. The records were produced by Palm Springs resident, Steve Rowland, so there was the local tie-in and he graciously shared some of this thoughts at the after-screening Q&A. The film is just now opening in selected cities.
Rodriguez was far better than Dylan ever thought about being. Pure of voice, poetic of heart, a Mexican/American Indian with a spirit so stealth it knocks you completely off balance; he was discovered in a Detroit dive bar, recorded two albums that bombed and then drifted away. The music industry being the cruelest of mistresses, and the most insidious of bookkeepers, it was rumored that he committed an on-stage suicide after the audience rejection. Urban legend complete. Case closed.
Not so fast. That’s just the beginning of a layered mystery that begged to be told but until now, never was. During the Apartheid era in South Africa, bootlegged copies of Rodriguez’s records with their anti-establishment message tapped into the psyche of the underground and became their anthem of unrest. Rodriguez was their folk hero. It’s estimated that at least 500,000 copies of his albums were eventually sold there. Enter the Internet and the curiosity of two South Africans who began a journey to seek out and uncover the story of what happened to Sixto Rogriguez. Oh, and where the money went. There’s always that, isn’t there?
No spoiler alert here. Go meet Sugarman for yourself.